We must keep our promise to mine workers

Perhaps the warning light on your dash is nothing major, but what if it is? No one wants to pay for repairs that might not be needed, but we know that ignoring or avoiding the issue is to do so at your peril and sometimes at great cost.

Congress is facing a flashing warning light with the looming insolvency of the United Mine Workers (UMWA) 1974 pension plan. Now is the time to finally act and do something before the problem gets worse. Congress should pass the Miners Pension Protection Act (H.R.935).

In less than three years, the UMWA’s pension fund will reach insolvency and pension benefits for more than 100,000 miners and their families will be at risk. The families and communities that depend on those pensions will be at risk as well.

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The Miners Pension Protection Act ensures that our nation takes care of those who risked their lives to power it. Congress has an obligation to pass this bipartisan bill that would ensure our nation will keep the promise it made to our retired miners, their families, and their widows. 

These miners did not do anything to cause this crisis. Their union did not cause it, and their employers did not cause it. Yet, they are the ones who will suffer if we fail to act. Their modest benefit, an average sum of $586 per month, helps them pay for their homes, their groceries, medical bills and basic life necessities.

Misguided federal policies have decimated coal jobs for decades across the country. At the same time, funding for technology that will allow the world to use coal in a carbon-neutral way – a key component of any effort to curb emissions -- has languished.

The increased use of natural gas to generate electricity, along with artificial market manipulation to encourage greater use of renewable sources, has led to the closure of hundreds of coal-fired power plants, cost tens of thousands of jobs, reduced the demand for coal and bankrupted more than 50 coal companies. All these recent events – on top of the 2008 financial crisis – brought us to this point.

Since 2013, we have pushed for legislation to fix this problem, and protect the solvency of pensions for retired miners.

In May of 2017, we took a small step by providing a fix for miners’ health care benefits that were at risk of going away. After years of uncertainty, we provided miners and their families with peace of mind that the health care benefits they worked to earn would be preserved. Congress needs to do the same for the UMWA pensions.

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While some have advocated turning over UMWA pension plan to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), the PBGC has said such an action would cause their multiemployer fund to be exhausted in just one to three years, resulting in massive benefit cuts.

Our solution allows the fund to survive and protect the modest benefits these miners earned through a life of hard, dangerous work.

For years now, Congress has been ignoring the miners’ pension fund warning light and now we are quickly running out of time to keep our promise.

While others may overlook and underappreciate miners, we know that they have worked to make this country the most powerful on earth, and now it is our turn to keep our promise to them.

Congressman David B. McKinley represents West Virginia’s First District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Cecil E. Roberts is a sixth-generation coal miner and President of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).